Lykke Li: how heartbreak, hip hop and lots of mezcal helped ‘So Sad So Sexy’ come to life

As she embraces the world of hip-hop and R&B on fourth opus 'So Sad So Sexy', we meet the Scandi noir sad-pop queen to talk death, birth and rebirth over a whole lotta Mezcal...

Mezcal is one hell of a drink. The smokey cousin of tequila and a body-numbing party fuel, it’s also flowing as we first meet Lykke Li on a sticky London Spring evening in the Mexican hacienda-style basement of Soho’s La Bodega Negra. The cellar is buzzing as we gather for the first listen of  ‘So Sad So Sexy’, the first solo album from the Scandi-noir heroine in four years.

In that time she’s had a child, lost her mother, found a new record label and manager, moved from Sweden to LA, and in her own words “finally feels like a woman” – being “reborn” at the age of 32. Presenting all of that while talking a room of drunk journalists through her bold and genre-hopping new record is not something Lykke’s particularly comfortable with.

To help with proceedings, she’s plied herself and the whole room with her own brand of mezcal, ‘YOLA’. Shy but hilarious and brutally self-deprecating, she soldiers through and conquers the room.

“It was something that I’ve never done before,” she tells NME afterwards. “I’m Swedish so that’s not how we roll. I felt like such an asshole for making people sit through that.”

Did the mezcal help?

“Yes, I packed it myself in my suitcase because there was absolutely no way that I was going to get through all that without it! I did the listening things in New York and Stockholm too, and I drank so much straight mezcal that I honestly don’t remember anything about it apart from having panic attacks. What do people think?”

Well, both the mezcal and the album are surprising left-turns for Lykke Li. One might not expect the black-clad sad-pop queen to find herself wasted and partying in Mexico; loaded on her new favourite tipple provided by “the most gorgeous women she’d ever met” before vowing to “create the first all-female booze brand and take over the world with it”. As well as working with her girlfriends, YOLA is also the first company to employ and pay women in the Mexican state of Oaxaca directly. Just like with the booze, ‘So Sad So Sexy’ is Lykke Li on a quest for freedom and empowerment on her own terms.

Moving to LA, she soaked up the sounds of California, distanced herself from any ‘indie’ inhibitions and ushered in collaborations from the worlds of hip-hop, R&B, dance music and beyond. The result is an added colour and definition to Lykke Li’s widescreen melancholia. So, how does Scandi sadness go down in Los Angeles?

“It melts right in,” she laughs, speaking a month ahead of the album’s release. “It’s like the perfect place. LA has a darkness, a weirdness and a solitude, so it really is the perfect place for us. You just feel so blessed that you can wear flip-flops, you know what I mean?”

Lykke Li on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach/NME

“Your twenties is a chapter and then past thirty… shit happens. You have a kid, your mom dies… things become very complicated when you’re a semi-adult. Real life kicks in. You understand that dreams are for dreamers and nothing is ever what it seems”
– Lykke Li

The daughter of Johan Zachrisson of the Swedish punk band Dag Vag and photographer mother Kärsti Stiege, Lykke led quite a nomadic and bohemian childhood, before seeing a Michael Jackson video on TV inspired her to pursue music, dancing and forge her own path. Just three weeks after son Dion was born, Li received the news that her mother had been diagnosed with brain cancer; she eventually lost her in July last year, just when she needed her the most.

During the most isolating of times, Lykke Li found a newfound sense of compulsion, abandon, freedom and self by pushing herself through the boundaries of discomfort. Using hip-hop and R&B as her new palette, she felt open to the mainstream – finding kindred spirits in the honest, emotional, dark and experimental world of modern US rap. “For the first time since I was 10 and into pop music and Michael Jackson, I actually like what’s being played on the radio,” she admits. “Hip-hop is so big in America. It’s so psychedelic too. It’s me trying to make something modern that reflects what I see and the people in my life.”

It was the stark but accomplished dream-pop of 2008 debut ‘Youth Novels’ that made her an immediate international art-pop sensation, while the ambitious follow-up ‘Wounded Rhymes’ added a touch more bombast to her tightrope-strut between devastating and danceable. She described lush break-up album ‘I Never Learn’ as the last part of a trilogy (and “a total bummer”) – the end of a very colourful chapter.

“I think it is for most people,” she says. “Your twenties is a chapter and then past 30… shit happens. You have a kid, your mom dies… things become very complicated when you’re a semi-adult. Real life kicks in. You understand that dreams are for dreamers and nothing is ever what it seems.”

Hell, we can all relate to that. I put to her that memory of being much younger, looking at someone the age you are now and thinking ‘THAT is an adult’ – then you get there yourself and don’t feel like you’ve ‘come of age’ at all.

“Maybe we’ll never be there, that’s the disappointment that adulthood can bring,” she shrugs. “I’ve never felt that I’ve reached that at any age, but I’ve felt that I had a lot.

“Being away for so long has given me so much gratitude. I got a new deal, people want to work with me and I have a chance. That’s not something I take for granted in this day in age. I’m not a money machine; I don’t bring it in. For people to want to work with me based on my art is a pretty incredible thing.”

For ‘So Sad So Sexy’, Lykke Li brought an all-star cast into the studio – working with Portland rapper Aminé, as well as producers Rostam (formerly of Vampire Weekend), T-Minus, Skrillex, DJ Dahi, Jeff Bhasker and more. Between them, they’ve worked with a roster that includes the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Lana Del Rey, Drake, Jay-z, Beyoncé and Kanye West.

“I don’t plan anything,” says Lykke of her approach to collaborators. “It’s like ‘what do I want to do? What is difficult for me?’ I was inspired by the people around me. I was like, ‘Woah, they’re fucking good at writing songs. I want to write a song like that’. I was feeling inspired to make a song better – to think about the structure and the melody a little more, rather than just having a suicidal diary note.

“I need for them to bring something that I couldn’t have done myself and push me into a place that I haven’t been able to do myself – like a real band. To understand what I’ve been trying to do and take me there. Like a real band, you know. It’s about risk-taking and being exponential. You know, fuck it.”

Lykke Li on stage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach/NME

“I really tried my fucking hardest, and completely immersed myself in the process. It was hard and I did everything I could. I have to forgive myself that I’m not as great as Kendrick Lamar” – Lykke Li

Living by the mantra that comfort kills creation, Li admits that she finds it hard to settle on whether a project is ever really ‘good enough’. Has she finally found contentment in laying ‘So Sad So Sexy’?

“I really tried my fucking hardest, and completely immersed myself in the process,” she stresses. “Also, my circumstances were fucking rough. I had a new born baby, and my mom died and a bunch of shit happened in my personal life. It was hard and I did everything I could. I have to forgive myself that I’m not as great as Kendrick Lamar.

“It can be daunting. I always feel like, ‘Damn, I failed at making this thing as great as it could have been’. You just have to come to terms with it. This is a Martha Graham [20th century dancer] quote, where she says that to be an artist is to be completely and utterly disappointed. It never is as good as you want it to be. That’s the way it is. You just have to wake up every day and try again.”

Lykke Li backstage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach/NME

“Who am I? Nothing is assured, ever. I don’t care about anything except the actual work. The world is a fucked up place in general. You have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s the age of insecurity and that’s just how it is to be human” – Lykke Li

Fast forward a month, and Lykke Li is on the promotional trail on the eve of the release of ‘So Sad So Sexy’, with pretty huge billings at BBC’s Biggest Weekend, the inaugural All Points East Festival in London, and a Saturday night main stage slot at Primavera Sound Festival. Goofing around and posing for photos for NME backstage in Barcelona, Lykke Li is a lot more at ease. “I don’t actually take myself as seriously as I seem in my press pictures,” she laughs.

We ask if the hip-hop bounce and dancefloor bloom of the new material will change the energy of her often sombre live show. “Yes, but it’s a different type of muscle,” she replies. “It’s a challenge and another place where I’m highly uncomfortable. I have to run up and down stairs in preparation. It’s a ‘Rocky’ kind of thing, so I’m ready.”

You might assume that the Lykke Li you see in 2018 might be much more assured as both a person and an artist – but of course, you’d be very, very wrong.

“No, not at all,” she confesses. “Now it’s just a whole other world. Who am I? Nothing is assured, ever. I don’t care about anything except the actual work. The world is a fucked up place in general. You have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s the age of insecurity and that’s just how it is to be human.”

With another layer of reticence shed but never comfortable with the fear of the unknown, at least Lykke Li has never been more enthused by the countless avenues she could follow her sound down. While her old-school devotees may feel alienated by her future adventuring, they can at least find solace that the nerve running through future records will only grow more raw with each attempt.

“I want to get to an even more free-flowing, exponential, subconscious place,” she tells NME of her dreams for the future. “I want to be freer, bolder, wilder and reach the next level.

“People are always gonna get disappointed with whatever you do. I don’t think about that, but what I’ve realised is a beautiful thing is that my fans value me being emotional, honest and raw. I think that’s what I intend to do forever, but it will probably sound different. It will probably throw people off, but at the core it will be the same. It’s heartbreak hotel, every day and every night.”

Whatever triumph and trauma may come, there are at least some constants to get you through, much like a certain tonic. “They have a saying in Mexico,” laughs Lykke, “they say ‘para todo mal, mezcal, y para todo bien también’ – it means ‘for everything bad, mezcal; for everything good, the same’.”

Cheers.

Lykke Li backstage at Primavera Sound 2018. Credit: Matias Altbach/NME

Lykke Li returns to the UK to headline London’s O2 Academy Brixton on Sunday November 4. Tickets are available here from 9am on Wednesday June 13.

‘So Sad So Sexy’ is out now.